My Battle With Impostor Syndrome

(EDIT: I can’t figure out a better way to show this, so just FYI, this is the post that was featured on Freshly Pressed!)


Dear Younger Emily,

It’s very possible that you’ve always struggled with Impostor Syndrome. According to the Ada Initiative, “Impostor Syndrome is the (incorrect) feeling that you’re a fraud, that you’re not skilled enough for your role, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor eventually.”

You are always bewildered when you get a good part in a play, and nearly every occupation you dream for yourself is eventually disregarded because you can’t imagine yourself being successful at it.

But it’s not until you are laid off twice in your twenties that Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head.

Apparently many (if not most—dare I say almost all?) women struggle with Impostor Syndrome. Maybe for a man, being laid off twice would just be fodder for their determination to make it big. After all, Einstein got Fs in school, right? But for you, being laid off will become your greatest reason to doubt yourself.

Your first layoff will come in early 2009, when there are so many advertising layoffs, the big advertising rumor blog will create a separate Twitter account just to announce them all.

No one will hire you full-time for a while after that. Because no one hires anyone for a while after that. The world is waiting for the storm to pass. When a new agency hires you, you swallow your pride, let your Impostor Syndrome take the reins and decide it’s the best you can do. You accept the pay cut and the boring client.

Your second layoff will come after this new agency loses the boring client (along with its 800 million dollars). Yes, there are 100 people let go from the agency that day. But it will still sting, because they let you go and they don’t let other people go. And there had to be a reason, you decide. It must be because you’re not good enough, and they finally figured it out.

After the second layoff, a friend tells you that the agency is hiring again. You don’t even ask to be taken back because you’ve decided to move to San Francisco. But your friend says they asked for you already anyway. The agency refused to hire anyone back because they wanted fresh blood. You are only 26.

That very night when you get home, you’ll get this email from a Creative Director in San Francisco:

“I’m honestly looking for much stronger executions for someone who’s been in the business for a few years like yourself…My recommendation is to pair up with a strong AD [Art Director] on the side, and do a few really solid spec campaigns before you venture to the west coast.”

It’s not really the Creative Director’s fault. Maybe he’s never had Impostor Syndrome, so he thinks his strong opinions are helpful. But you will look around at your packed boxes and cry. Loudly. You will question nearly every decision you have ever made. You will still tell yourself that the two layoffs are not your fault, but it won’t do any good. You will question whether you will ever get a job again, and you will question whether you really deserve one anyway.

And then in less than a year, you’ll find yourself in San Francisco, doing a different kind of writing (one you like much better) at The Best Place To Work. Literally. It wins awards.

So maybe you aren’t really a fraud after all. Maybe there really is talent there, despite what that one guy said.

You will still struggle with your Impostor Syndrome in San Francisco. Chicago is a great city, but Chicago also made it fairly clear it didn’t want you there. Your success in San Francisco feels undeserved. It feels lucky. It feels like you’ve tricked people into thinking you could do the work, and one day they’ll figure out that you shouldn’t be there, just like the Advertising agencies figured out that you shouldn’t be there. But so far, San Francisco has wrapped you in its arms and quietly shushed you until those worries have quieted to a purr.

Still, every time you don’t get a lot of work done, every day you feel distracted, every time someone comes up with an idea that you hadn’t thought of, you feel like a fraud, one step closer to being found out.

But despite the negative voices, your twenties are full of accomplishments–great stuff that takes work. You land a kickass advertising job right out of undergrad when most people have to go to grad school. You turn an internship into a full-time job when HR says they aren’t hiring. You make things that people love. You write your little writer butt off.

Sure, there is luck involved. You get that first kickass advertising job after you pull the right name from a hat. But you create the life you live. You still move to San Francisco, despite the soul-crushing email. And a lot of people since then will be very happy with the work you do for them. So, while it takes you a long time to learn to just say “thank you” and accept the praise that other people give, you will do it. It will feel uncomfortable to smile and nod instead of shaking your head and protesting that you really didn’t do that much. But you will do it, because you realize it’s important to stick up for the things you do accomplish. It’s you who waded through all the negativity to a place that makes you happy. And the guy who wrote that email is stuck hocking other people’s lame products for a living.

45 thoughts on “My Battle With Impostor Syndrome

  1. “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord”. You are ALWAYS on the rght path REAL Emily, and I love watching you grow. XOXOXO

  2. Sometimes there is a randomness to life I really do not understand. I have also been bounced and sometimes that lead to better things and sometimes not. But life is a highway, just hum along. The end result is a balance sheet. The most important thing is who you have balanced yourself with. For me it has been a wife of forty three years. And through the good and the bad I am glad she was at my side.

  3. Steve McQueen often commented that he had a hard time learning to accept his popularity because his acting was mostly himself being himself. But himself being himself was what his fans loved about him. And it certainly resulted in some great work.

  4. I can relate to this so much. Thank you for it. It’s encouraging to hear your story, and know there’s light at the end of the tunnel for getting to where you want to go 🙂 Your SF job sounds fabulous 😀

  5. Great post! I know many people, besides myself, who feel as do you. The crazy thing is, we have all accomplished big things. I built several companies, one of which grew to $350 Million with 3500 employees, and still, I felt that at any moment, I could be found to be incompetent.

    Personally, I think part of it is because others look confident in a way we may outwardly show, while not inwardly feeling it.

    But you just continue to push ahead, and after awhile, you realize that you are just as competent as the next successful person, and that many of them feel exactly the same. A person’s history has a way of sorting this out over time.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  6. This is something everyone can relate to. From different experiences we have all felt like an impostor. I know I have. Thanks for sharing and congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

  7. Yeah, there’s luck involved in your success, but luck doesn’t create your success. Luck just gives you a chance to prove yourself, which you have to almost everybody … except maybe you.

    Congratulations on faking it (i.e. not letting your self-perceived impostor status shut you down) and making it! You performed like the Roomba, running into a few walls and then getting the job done anyway.

  8. Reblogged this on A Tree Grows in the Bayou and commented:
    “Impostor Syndrome is the (incorrect) feeling that you’re a fraud, that you’re not skilled enough for your role, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor eventually.”

    Does anyone else struggle with this? I’ve read little about it before deciding to apply to PhD programs, and, I have to admit, there was a small, negative voice in the back of my mind telling me that I would not be able to do this. That I wasn’t as well-read as many other applicants, and that my writing sounding like something out of an elementary school read-a-loud. Luckily, I shut that guy up and have since felt pretty confident in my abilities as a scholar.

    I think that overcoming an inferiority complex or Imposter syndrome takes time and trust in oneself. It took me a while to get where I am today, but I think that all the trials my own psyche gave me, made me all the more confident in my abilities now.

  9. There is something about San Francisco that brings out the best in us. Maybe it is the fact that we have run out of Continent and have to put our backs to the sea and bust a move. We reap what we sow, so keep planting seeds and the future will have a bountiful harvest for you.

    Congratulations on being FP’d.

  10. As long as the checks keep clearing, it’s all good! I’ve been writing for a living since college — 30 years — and I don’t feel like an impostor but I do still feel nervous every time I turn in a piece, hoping it’s good enough. I think ambitious people always doubt themselves. It keeps us sharp.

  11. I don’t know how you did it, and it’s a little unnerving, but I think you just described me…”Still, every time you don’t get a lot of work done, every day you feel distracted, every time someone comes up with an idea that you hadn’t thought of….”

    Do I, like, need a therapist now?

  12. ‘ It’s not really the Creative Director’s fault’ – if you believe there is a God and that God is omnipotent, then everything that goes wrong is her fault.

  13. I’m glad you shared this! I guess a lot of us really do underestimate ourselves, focusing on negative feedback rather than positive feedback… Glad to hear a success story 🙂

  14. This was a good post, but it totally described me, which is somewhat scary. I’ve always felt like an imposter, like I wasn’t as good as I seem. I’ve never had any reason to. I’m a straight A student, and I’ve always been successful, but I can’t help the feeling.

  15. “But you will do it, because you realize it’s important to stick up for the things you do accomplish.”
    That right there, stuck a chord with me immediately. How true that is and how guilty I am for forgetting that far too often! Thank you so much for sharing.

  16. I hate Imposter Syndrome. What was crazy was I brought this up recently at work, all my co-workers confessed to feeling this often. I think the most important this to learn from this really horrible feeling, is just to understand that you are not alone in feeling this way.

  17. Reblogging this great piece by Emily Shepard about creatives (or anyone, really) who feels like they are about to be “found out” as not being good enough Any Minute Now, regardless of what they have accomplished or how far they have come or how many HURDLES ALREADY they have made it over. Thank you Emily for saying this so well.

  18. Not a syndrome at all, self doubt and persistent negative thoughts are the human condition. The Dhalai Lama speaks about this. Read “The Secret”, it’s simplistic and campy, yet an easily digestible guide to conquering The Impostor Syndrome.

  19. I completely can relate with Imposter Syndrome, and- believe it or not- I think my husband can, too! There was a period in our lives when we were moving every 7-11 mos literally across the country from agency to agency. Many times it would be the BBD (Bigger Better Deal) where they weren’t as productive as they needed to be and they were going to hire him to shake it up and reformat the groups as an ECD and then we get there… and…. he’s completely neutered. His business and creative insight was threatening to all the empire builders and no one had the balls to follow through with what they had hired him to do in the first place. Eventually the tension built because he has always looked farther than the next quarter and that means stepping outside the front door. They’re all closet agoraphobes. The only difference is he had a family, and it was growing- by the YEAR. I can place each different marker of our lives and moving for ad jobs based on the specific pregnancy I was in at that time. Just before our 8th (yes as in 4+4) was announced he decided to just get out and start his own agency.
    For me- Im a self taught photographer. People fall over themselves praising my work but when they ask what I charge, my throat tightens up and I get nervous. I love what I do, but I admire so many other photographers I do REALLY FEEL like a fraud. This is also one reason I haven’t done any work for my husband. The last thing I want is for my cruddy work to reflect poorly on my husband….

  20. I’m a Creative Director with major impostor syndrome. I’m pretty sure it’s something you just have to learn to live with. Funny how every girl I have ever mentioned it to does the GASP “You TOO?”. Great post.

  21. I found that truly learning to live in my “authentic self” put an end to this shuddering fear. When we have such disparity between our public and private selves this syndrome creeps into the gaps between these.
    Nice commentary however, a point to ponder.

  22. Just last week, I came across a video on YouTube entitled “Power Posing – How the Body Changes the Mind ” by social psychologist Amy J. Cuddy. She also suffered from Impostor Syndrome and discusses why “fake it till you make it” is an effective strategy. I strongly recommend this video to any of us who do or have felt like an impostor. There are some limitations to the video, in that the slides are not visible, but it is still worth watching. There are additional presentations by Dr. Cuddy on YouTube, however, have not as yet viewed them.

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